My dad grew up in Scarsdale, New York – but, as he’s quick to point out, that was before it became “Scahsdahle.” His dad told him always to root for the underdog, and my dad took that seriously.
All his friends were Yankees fans, but Dad loved the Brooklyn Dodgers. A perfect Friday night for him, when he was a young teen, was to go up to his room with a Faygo Redpop, a Boy’s Life magazine – he was on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout – and listen to Red Barber reporting on the Dodgers’ game. He wouldn’t say something so prosaic as, “the bases are loaded,” but “the bases are saturated with humanity.”
Dad was a decent athlete – baseball and golf – but he didn’t make his high school team. He did have a star turn as the short stop for his fraternity softball team, which won the championship when he pulled off a perfect squeeze play. You never forget those moments.
My parents raised three kids, and spent most of their weekends schlepping us to swim meets and hockey games. My dad had to wake me up at five in the morning, then pile me and my hockey bag into our 1965 Volkswagen Beetle – which had no radio and a heater only in theory. I’m sure I complained every time he woke me up. He didn’t complain once.
My dad didn’t play hockey, but he taught me the important things: Play hard. Play fair. Losing is okay. Loafing is not. And hot-dogging after a goal was unacceptable. You’re better off not scoring than doing that.
My dad and I spent countless hours together watching George Kell do the Tigers’ games on TV, and Ernie Harwell on the radio.
In high school my brother and I both made the hockey team, and played together for one season. My dad is not one to brag, but he gushed to us about seeing his two boys standing together on the blue line for the national anthem. It didn’t matter to him that that was all the ice time we usually got.
When I became a sullen teen – at least at home – we didn’t have a lot to talk about. Still, like Daniel Stern’s character said in “City Slickers,” we always had baseball. That kept us connected, when it seemed like few things did.
After I left home, we started becoming good friends. To paraphrase Mark Twain, it was amazing how much my father had changed.
We formed another bond when I took over my old high school hockey team, Ann Arbor Huron, which had not won a game in a year and a half. Assessing my team’s situation, my dad said, “Well, when you’re on the floor, you can’t fall out of bed.”
I gave my parents a schedule, but I didn’t expect to see them at the games. But they came to every one of our home games. And the games in Trenton, and Muskegon, and Traverse City – and even Culver, Indiana. They became valued members of the hockey parents’ gang.
When we won our first game, they were there. When we finally beat Pioneer in my third season, they were there. The lobby crowd was loud, but not my dad. He didn’t say a word, but I’ll never forget his glassy eyes as he reached out his hand to grasp mine, and he held it, firmly.
He knew how much it meant to me. And I saw how much it meant to him.
When I asked him a couple months ago what I could possibly get him for his birthday, he said, “Just your friendship.” Consider it done.
And that’s what he’s getting for Father’s Day, too.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the Wall Street Journal, and ESPN Magazine, among others. He is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller, and “Third and Long: Three Years with Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines,” due out this fall through FSG. Bacon teaches at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009.